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The Worldly Church

By February 13, 2014 No Comments

Now that I’m back living and teaching in a distinctively Reformed setting, I hear a concern for the purity of the church underneath conversations about Christian faith and ministry. It’s a worry about being tainted by sin or ungodliness that gets manifested in a kind of spiritual hypervigilance, an emphasis on human action in the economy of salvation that seems to eclipse divine action (and hence grace). Resting and trusting in the promises of God seems muted in this talk.

While much could be said about this dynamic in Christianity (it’s certainly not limited to Reformed circles, though I must say, in a shout out to my Lutheran friends, that I did not experience this among them), I’ve been struck particularly by how this distorts the church’s ministry in the world. Karl Barth, Swiss Reformed theologian of the twentieth century, was clear on this: the Spirit sends the church into solidarity with the world. This solidarity stems from the fact that the church and world share a common creaturely existence. Sin, suffering, and death afflict the church and the world alike. Though awakened to faith in Christ, the church and its members continue to sin. We are simul justus et pecator, the communion of saints and sinners, meaning we are always simultaneously both of those. The primary difference between the church and the world (and it’s not difficult to find evidence of this) is noetic: the church knows that humanity has been reconciled to God through Christ. The Spirit has awakened it to this knowledge and called and sent it to participate in Christ’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation.

And that is the church’s vocation: sent deep into the muck and mire of human sin and suffering, which is also present in the church itself, we point to Christ who has accomplished this reconciliation for us already.  We speak the “YES” of God to humanity far louder than the “No” to human sin. Too often churches get this disordered as well—taking it upon themselves to do the work only the Spirit can do and forgetting that our sin is recognized and known only in the context of grace.  Judgment rather than grace becomes the message. And the church’s basic posture of generosity toward the world dissipates; no wonder so many turn away. This lack of generosity toward the world is, as Barth puts it, “an alarming sign that something is decisively wrong in the inward relationship of the community [of faith] to its own basis of existence [in Christ]” (Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, 772).

The church is bound to the world in its mission. Existing for God means existing for others. The two cannot be separated anymore than love of God and love of neighbor. So witness takes the form of solidarity. And solidarity means genuine attachment, engagement, and compassionate action. A compassion parallel to that of Christ impels faithful mission and is a sign of the church’s rightly ordered relationship with God, itself, and the world. Failing to live in this kind of solidarity with the world is a denial of our calling, indeed a contradiction of our own identity in Christ. Fears about being “in the world but not of the world” can cause the church to stand aloof or in judgment of those outside its walls (and inside its walls). It can lead to an orientation toward mission in which people become merely objects to be converted. In all of these instances, to quote Barth again, the church “manifests a remarkable conformity to the world if concern for its purity and reputation forbid it to compromise itself with it” (Dogmatics IV/3.2, 778). 

What is perhaps most saddening to me (at least in this moment of reflection) is that such a stance seems to come from fear not faith; fear that our own lack of purity somehow is held against us by God and others. The good news of the Gospel frees us from this worldliness and simultaneously frees us to be worldly in our authentic, genuine, close solidarity with all, including ourselves.

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